Three Little Words

The two of us once hiked far into an enchanted forest in Italy called the Sybillini Mountains. From a deep ravine with dancing waters we climbed a path up and up through a stand of pristine trees, mostly some kind of birch I think. The path got steeper, the trees more uniform and a wind in the trees stronger, as if to send us a message through the living leaves. (I wish I could tell you what kind of tree.) At the remote-seeming peak, a vision: a classical stone chapel, open to us. Inside the small sanctuary, apparently maintained by monks but deserted when we entered, an altar had these Italian words engraved, “LA VIA, LA VERA, LA VITA.”

This is what Jesus said he was — “I am” — when Thomas asked him at the Last Supper (John 17), “How can we know the way?” How interesting that the three words have similar spellings in Italian (and Latin). The way, VIA, has the same first and last letters as the truth and the life. And the “Way” becomes the “Life,” in Italian, if you insert a “T,” which is sometimes taken as the Cross.

George Herbert, the 17th century poet and Anglican pastor, played with these three little English words in a poem that is set to the 20th century music of Ralph Vaughan Williams as Hymn 487 in the Episcopal Hymnal.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife;
Such a life as killeth death.

Singing this, as we did last Sunday in church, you might miss the tight verbal patterns, let alone the packed meanings. The stanza is rhymed A-B-A-B. The second, third and fourth lines all start the same way, “Such a,” like three silver clasps of those jewels, Way, Truth and Life. But after the first line, the upper-case words that represent Christ Himself, become the lower-case generic words, as the divine became incarnate in the human. So, “Such a” connects the singular with the universal, the temporal with the eternal.

Look closer at the interior rhyme scheme. The last word of the second line, “breath,” is an off rhyme with the third word of the next line, “truth.” Similarly, the last word of the third line, “strife,” is rhymed with the third word of the next line, “life.” So the whole verse is woven together in an intricate almost mathematical design, exhibiting the idea that the sound and structure of language itself can reveal beauty that is nested within its meaning. When the meaning is metaphysical, the effect in language is what made George Herbert one of the Metaphysical Poets, as John Donne and some other contemporaries are called.

This tight pattern of English word-sounds is also maintained, remarkably, in the second and third stanzas of this three-verse hymn. Herbert invokes two new trinities to echo Christ’s self-naming triplet of the Way, Truth and Life, making an overall design of three. The second verse:

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast;
Such a feast as mends in length;
Such a strength as makes his guest.

And the third and final verse:

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move;
Such a love as none can part;
Such a heart as joys in love.

The ingenious design weaves like a braid, but it may be too much. It strains the meaning. Although “mend” can be an intransitive verb, meaning to increase in value, a feast that “mends in length” makes little sense, unless you take “in length” to mean lifelong, or eternal. What kind of joy can none “move”? What kind of love can none “part”? It is biblical language, of course, and the idiom may be partly lost to 21st century English. Also, to hold the design, Herbert needs “move” to rhyme with, or at least look like, “love.” And he needs “length” to rhyme with “strength,” which means he needs a one-syllable intransitive verb to connect with length. Since the feast is Christ’s eucharistic Body, maybe “mends” is the perfect and porous verb. But much of this poem doesn’t make sense.

How does such a strength “[make] his guest”? I think it means the Lord (“Strength”) makes (me) his guest.

This may be explained by a feast in another poem, “Love (III).” This most well-known of Herbert’s poems is from the point of view of a wayfarer who arrives, let’s say at a tavern on the road, and is welcomed by Love, the ultimate allegorical figure.

“Love bade me welcome,” the poem begins, “yet my soul drew back.” The poem is a dialogue, a tender disagreement, between Love and a guilt-ridden traveler. Love,“sweetly questioning” the dusty traveler, finally leaves him cornered. So he offers to serve. She (for “quick-eyed” Love seems very feminine here) abruptly cuts off the dialogue. “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit, and eat.” No more argument. He is made Love’s guest.

Those last two lines give me the shivers. This is the poem that the writer Walker Percy mentions as giving him a final push into his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. Simone Weil, the French philosopher whose conversion to the Roman Church was never completed, describes reciting the poem to herself when she was suffering from intolerable headaches, and then having Christ descend and take possession of her. For me, studying the poem in a college class called “The Metaphysical Poets” was not that intense. But it may have been the start of something important in my life, on the way.

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The “Truth” in a Pluralistic World

Post script to the post “Three Little Words”: Jesus’s answer to Thomas in the Gospel of John, that he is “The Way, the Truth and the Life,” makes a claim that is particularly hard to defend, much less understand, in today’s pluralistic and reasonably offended world. Rowan Williams, the intellectual Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-12) with the wonderfully upswept eyebrows and wizard’s beard, unpacked this challenge in a lecture he gave in 2010.

( LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem: The claim that Jesus is THE Way, Truth and Life is aggressively exclusive, asserting what Williams calls an absolute and unique “finality.” It’s a position that can embarrass sensitive Christians in the face of Jewish continuity, other beliefs, and non-belief (even of dear friends and family).

Here is the former archbishop’s lecture. It’s carefully set out, so I can’t adequately simplify it. But to try to keep it straight in my head, or if you don’t read the whole thing, here’s my outline of what Williams calls the three “great objections” and his answers:

I. Modern Objections

  1. Moral – For God to base salvation on one chancy, historically embedded “way.”
  2. Political – That it’s a recipe for contempt of, or crusades against, outsiders.
  3. Philosophical – How can the final “truth” be born in a single place and culture, and apply to everyone always?

II. Problems with these Objections

  1. Gospel is not saying “or else!” to outsiders, but speaking only about a vital relationship with Jesus as the “final” form of everyone’s full humanity – what each person was always meant to be.
  2. To say this truth isn’t for everybody is to divide humans and humanity into various pieces, condescending to some, making Christian faith relativistic.
  3. “The Way” is not an abstract principle, but is more like a walk, a personal discovery, an individual’s transformation.

III. Modest Answers to these Objections

  1. Moral – It would be more unfair to deny that all have access to an ultimate Father-Son relationship as the stamp of full humanity, the eternal in our nature.
  2. Political – This is God’s work, not ours in any particular cultural form. Understanding that, we become humble about what we know and claim, and more critical of human systems, racism, bigotry, arrogance, etc.
  3. Philosophical – There is “something about human nature which is beyond change and negotiation; something about the way we are as humans.”

So how should Christians, believing this, relate to other faiths and nonbelievers? Williams says: With open minds and hearts, on the principle that there’s much to learn from others if you are free to live in the true fullness of your human nature and in expectation of its coming to all (including yourself).

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No Accident: Sharing another person’s day in court

Those ubiquitous traffic accidents called fender-benders can take on an after-life all their own. They send out invisible tendrils that attach, as if by a sticky toxic resin, to body shops, insurance policies, faceless insurance agents, lawyers, police reports, traffic charges, court fees and a Kafkaesque limbo. And that’s just for a white man like me. But this one was the other driver’s fault.

On Nov. 28, at the blinding half-hour when the setting sun rifles out West Howard Avenue in Decatur, Ga., a westbound car turned into the driver’s side of my 2010 Toyota Yaris. I was driving eastward in slow traffic through a green traffic light, the sun at my back. The other car was making a left turn at the little wish-bone jag of Atlanta Avenue that crosses the railroad tracks. I was going slow enough to veer right a little to get around this out-of-its-lane other car, but it kept coming. Like in a slow-motion dream, the other car didn’t decelerate until it plowed along my driver’s side. We both pulled our cars into the conveniently located service station. A police cruiser pulled into the station too, conveniently right behind the other car.

When I saw the two ladies in the other car, I felt a strong impulse to minimize their fault, which was obvious enough and ready to be documented by the female police officer approaching us. The driver was a Black lady in her late 60s. The passenger was her mother, in her 90s. As I learned, they were heading home after early voting in the runoff election for the U.S. Senate, a historic contest between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Hershel Walker – two larger-than-life figures in our national political drama. I was also heading home after voting. I had voted for Warnock in the runoff, and in fact had been canvassing for him earlier that day. All three of us were wearing “I Secured My Vote” stickers. They voted for Warnock as well, I learned later.

Early voting in DeKalb County was taking up to an hour of waiting in line.

When two cars collide, or any dramatic “accident” happens, one wonders about the preceding minutes and hours that made that event possible. Our waiting in line to vote sacrificed just the amount of time needed for the other driver to be going home into a blinding sunset exactly when I was driving by.

I told her I didn’t want to cause her any trouble, since there seemed to be little damage done to either car, and my humble Yaris could live with the scars. I was thinking of how a little accident like this could be a nightmare for anyone at fault (and I could imagine being at fault in some other accident, some other day). For her, it could be worse. I knew that for a Black person in a 20-year-old car, a woman taking care of her elderly mother, those entanglements with insurance, court costs and traffic offenses could be ruinous. She must’ve sensed my dilemma, because she offered this bit of reassurance.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she told me.

The police officer, young, white and with a subdued air of self-confidence, asked if I wanted her to write up a report – which would be a charge against the woman of failure to yield while turning left. The fine and court fee for this charge, we would learn later, would be $223.25. Repairing my car would be more, if I took it to a body shop. I hesitated.

I could let the whole thing drop. But life experience told me this needed to be on the public record. Years ago, I barely saved four of us in a Camry I was driving when an 18-wheeler pushed us halfway out of our lane on an interstate in Virginia. I took pictures and got the trembling Russian driver’s name. But it was near midnight and bitter cold, so we didn’t wait in that dangerous breakdown lane for police to arrive. Months later, I learned my insurance company had settled with the trucking company over its claim that the accident was my fault. There was no police report to contradict the claim. As a former journalist, too, I want facts to be verified by a public record.

Yes, I said, write it up, I told the officer. But as I told the woman driving the other car, I will testify in your favor. She said she knew she would be charged and need to go to court, but she didn’t seem to blame me for requesting the write-up. It was her fault, she said. The sun had blinded her and she didn’t see my car.

I am not unaware of the difference between a white man like me going to court, for whatever reason, and a black woman going to court. Having covered trials and court filings as a news reporter, I view the criminal justice system as a flawed but essential foundation of God-given rights. But I’ve studied the history. When the Swedish sociologist Gunner Myrdal researched race in the South for An American Dilemma (1944), he found that “Negroes” never enjoyed the trust that whites had in the courts. They were terrified. “Whites were the judges, the jurors, the bailiffs, the court clerks, the stenographers, the arresting officers, and the jailers,” as Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in The Race Beat. “Only the instruments of execution. . .were desegregated.”

This split-screen reality of the courts left a generational trauma for Blacks, like a fear of big dogs or deep water. Young Black men who already had run-ins with the law would instinctively run when cops told them to stop and submit. That’s what happened in Atlanta in 1966 when a white police officer stopped Harold Louis Prather to question him about a carjacking. He ran, and the policeman shot him twice in the hip and side. Bleeding, the youth collapsed on his mother’s porch and blamed the cop. By the end of the day, the Summerhill neighborhood was in full riot, with Stokely Carmichael and Mayor Ivan Allen playing historic roles.

In January this year, what happened in Memphis to the 29-year-old Black photographer Tyre Nichols seemed similar. The cops, this time, were Black, and the FedEx worker apparently had no police record to prompt him to run for it. But after an initial “confrontation,” he did run. And, like Prather in Atlanta, he ran to his mother’s house, calling “mom” as the officers beat him mercilessly. He died three days later.

Our hearing at Decatur Municipal Court was scheduled for Jan. 19, a weekday, at 6 p.m. This may have been an inconvenient time for a judge and other city workers to hold court, but it was good to accommodate people who need to work during the day. In the bright, modern courtroom sat about a dozen adults, all of them Black, waiting respectfully. Sitting closest to the door was the driver of the car that hit me. We greeted and I sat beside her to join the wait. A middle-aged white man in a coat and tie came in to sit at a desk near the front. I would learn that this was City Solicitor Larry Steele.

There’s something unnerving about being the only white person in a courtroom full of black defendants and their kin waiting for justice, when in comes a white Solicitor. Of course he represents one side of this evolved English system we have, with our rights from the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution guaranteeing presumption of innocence, equality before the law and all that. In terms of the law, his race was irrelevant. I knew that.

But it was a relief to me when “All rise” was called and the judge took her place in the seat above all, Municipal Court Chief Judge Rhathelian Stroud, a Black woman. The defendants came before her when called. She was serious, but reasonable. One man who looked to be in his 60s couldn’t pay his fine and court fees, so he was given 13 hours of community service to work off the $200 debt, instead of jail time. He was sent away with instructions to get his community service orders.

Later, I learned something about Judge Stroud from reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from December 2017. At that time, another judge with Decatur Municipal Court, Lindsay Jones, had sentenced a woman to spend two nights in jail – starting with the night of her 20th wedding anniversary – for contempt of court. Judge Jones attacked the woman’s account of a minor traffic infraction by playing a video of her car in an intersection under a red light, then jailed her for “perjury.”

The woman, her husband and her lawyer, all of them Black, were quoted in news accounts calling this punishment outrageous and embarrassing.

“This is what he does,” the woman’s husband told WSB-TV. “If you dispute a ticket in this court, you’re going to jail.” The attorney added: “We have to have a day of reckoning over this. This can’t continue to happen.”

Chief Judge Stroud, who was in effect Judge Jones’s boss, learned of the penalty and met with Jones, who is an adjunct law professor at Emory University with a long history of advocating for civil rights and multicultural understanding. According to an email Judge Stroud sent to the City Manager, she listened to Jones explain what he did. She shared her “concerns and subsequent expectations” with him, and Jones resigned. The woman was released from jail after only one night.

This was the same Judge Stroud who called our names to come forth. The woman driver pleaded “not guilty,” which marked the start of her bench trial. The Solicitor and the female officer were standing by a lectern on the left side. The driver who hit my car was standing at a lectern on the right. I was told to stand on the left with the other two. That would put the only three white people present together.

“Your Honor,” I said from the Solicitor’s side. “I’m a friendly witness.”

Well, the judge said, you can go over to be with the Defendant, which I did. We were sworn in.

Solicitor Steele presented his case. The officer gave her report of the accident. The Defendant acknowledged that the officer’s account was accurate, but that she was blinded by the sun, and “Mr. Cumming and I talked and he said. . .”

“Objection, your Honor,” said Steele. This would’ve been hearsay. So I was called on for my testimony. I explained that I considered not pressing charges, but did so only to have a record on what happened. There was little damage and no repair costs, I said. The judge asked if I had reported it to my insurance company. No, I hadn’t.

The solicitor did not seem happy with how things were going. He pointed out that the Defendant had broken the law. I recognized that he was just doing his job, protecting the safety of the public. From his perspective, I was getting in the way. I had no business being here unless it was on his side, since the “victim” in a crime like this is really the State, not me.

Judge Stroud was ready to pass judgment. Guilty as charged. Then the judge suspended the entire $223.25 penalty.

We left, relieved.

A few weeks later, I received a card from the Defendant, a woman who had retired after more than 30 years working in cancer wards at Emory University Hospital and the adjacent Children’s Hospital of Atlanta. The card was a Hallmark thank-you with generic printed words “for everything you have done. . . for everything you have given. . .”

She also wrote in her own hand: “Thank you for your help. . . It’s good to know there are still some good people around.” Everything happens for a reason, but my reason was not to be called good. It was, in part, to see the accident from her perspective, illuminated, in a sense, by the light of the day’s sun.

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What the Angels Said

“Fear not.” Someone should preach that sermon. Or write a book on it as a theme that runs throughout the Bible, from Abraham to Paul. The very announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds begins with that assurance, “Fear not.” It’s not just a theme, but the very nature and sign of the salvation the Bible maps out.

There’s so much fear in the land today, and loss of self-confidence. Reporting the news, for me, took a measure of confidence and a certain fearlessness. Now, people are afraid of what they read in the news, and afraid OF the news. They go instead to websites that make them feel good by reinforcing what they want to believe.

But this leads to a different kind of fear. In dark corners of the web, where social media sites ooze disorganized propaganda, fear sells. Be afraid, these oozings say. Afraid of liberals. Of transgendered teens, and the teachers that coddle them. Of CRT. (I remember when that meant Cathode Ray Tube, i.e. desktop computer, then Criterion-Referenced Tests.) Of secular humanists, socialism, gays, crime, Democrats. “Them.” They are behind the inflation you suffer at the grocery stores. They are behind a “soaring” crime rate. They rig elections, open our borders to drug dealers and terrorists, promote abortion, want to take our guns.

An op-ed I read recently made a convincing argument that the big-tech social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have a huge gap in their filters against bad actors. They filter “hate speech,” but not “fear speech.” They censor comments that are deemed racist, homophobic or antisemitic, but not those comments that merely warn of the dangers that any particular group allegedly pose to your lifestyle, or life. Be afraid, they say.

I don’t know how that can be filtered without stifling healthy free speech and important intellectual grit. I’m not even sure I agree with how Facebook defines “hate,” let alone how it might take on “fear.” Still, the drumbeat of conspiracy theories and “them” feeds a culture of fear. The op-ed argued that this kind of fear speech is what led to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Nazi death camps. The dark depths of mass fear can tip the scale of civil society into the torch-light mob of a lynching bee or to genocide.

Now, here’s one of those fears: They are coming for our guns. Heather Cox Richardson, the historian whose “Letters from an American” start my day, makes a good case for “the right to bear arms” applying ONLY to individuals who belong to a state-supported militia. That’s exactly what the Framers meant when they wrote the Second Amendment, she says, although she acknowledges that the wording is elusive (and has too many commas, in my opinion). She quotes an 1840 ruling of the Tennessee Supreme Court that makes it clear:  “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms; much less could it be said that a private citizen bears arms because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”

How did the NRA (formed in 1871 to promote marksmanship and sport shooting after the Civil War) turn into the lobbying giant of Movement Conservatives from the Reagan presidency to today? It was a marriage of convenience – opposition to business regulations and social programs, Richardson says. And it worked on fear of “gun control,” something that had previously been a strong bipartisan consensus. And so we’re left with a greater fear – that when we send our children to school or attend a concert like the Mandalay Bay country music festival in Las Vegas (where 60 were killed), another mass shooting might take place, for no reason.

I didn’t feel any hint of that fear as we walked down the four closed-off Ponce de Leon city blocks between rows and rows of arts & crafts tents last night. Four days ago, seven miles west of here, an “active shooter” killed one and wounded four in a waiting room in a Midtown Atlanta medical high-rise. But this is Decatur, on the Square, with the kind of open yet rich community culture I wish every community had.

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“Refuge”: Across the Great Divide

Heval Kelli, a Kurdish Syrian Muslim refugee living in Clarkston, just outside the Perimeter from here, exudes the kind of human empathy you can see in his very being. He listens quietly and attentively, and in responding to what even the most troubled or inarticulate person says, he seems to have just the right words. We saw this in the documentary “Refuge,” which five of us watched in a nearly empty Plaza theater Wednesday afternoon, the matinee (after we were turned away from the sold-out premiere on Sunday).

The man’s empathy, half saint-like, half bemused with irony, has three layers, I think. One is his experience as a refugee. His father was tortured. He spent his youth in a refugee camp. By the sheerest random luck, he got to America a few days after 9/11, and was sent to Clarkston, now called the most ethnically diverse square mile in America because of its welcoming structures for refugees from places like Syria and Somalia. A second layer is his quiet religious practice as a Muslim. He prays in the traditional way five times a day, and performs the duties of compassion and peace from the Koran. And finally, there’s the overlay of being an Emory cardiologist. He is trained well by the institution and Hippocratic oath to pay close attention to illness of body and soul in others, both meanings of the word “heart.”

We grow cynical about doctors, who seem to pursue specialties that separate them from the whole person, specialties that pay a lot more than general practice. But when I see Dr. Kelli, “call me Heval,” in the film, I think of Libby’s visit to a Hispanic cardiologist at Emory’s hospital on North Decatur Road, and my visit to a native Indian periodontist yesterday, Dr. Ash. They both exuded the same feeling of compassion as Dr. Kelli, which I now associate with a special gratitude and patriotism I sense in American immigrants who have achieved the height of success in the healing arts. Dr. Ash put his hand on my shoulder as he came from behind while I sat pitched back the dentist’s chair, and touched me the same way when he left. When I complained about my recent experience trying to get some reimbursement or explanation for the $1,042 I paid for getting a crown at this same big dentistry office, he agreed with me wholeheardedly about the shame of the U.S. not having universal healthcare. Even his native India, he said, has a more humane healthcare system. There are several doctors in his extended family, and all are for universal healthcare, he said. And he is horrified at the prevalence of guns here . .  He seemed to say without words, about guns: “Don’t get me started.”

Heval was an obvious protagonist for the two University of Virginia alumnae who decided to make this documentary, “Refuge,” after they were shocked by the Unite the Right rally in their beloved Charlottesville in 2017. There’s a scene in the movie where Heval welcomes a Republican Primary candidate for governor who arrives in Clarkston, by some miscalculation, on his “Deportation Bus” tour of Georgia. Heval offers him some good baklava, which Williams samples with the forced courtesy of the campaign trail. (Williams ended up with less than 5% of the primary vote, while Kemp, running ads of him hunting illegals with a shotgun, went on to barely beat Stacey Abrams that year.)

The heart of the documentary is about Heval’s relationship with another man, the extreme version of the type who would vote for a Williams or a Kemp. Chris Buckley is an Army veteran living in Lafayette, in the northwest corner of Georgia near the Tennessee and Alabama state lines. The relationship makes a powerful case for an answer to “hate groups” like those at the Charlottesville rally. The film shows the effectiveness of getting those who resent the Other to know one of them well. Chris, a heavily tattooed son of an abusive father, came back from traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with an addiction to pain meds that evolved into a crystal meth habit that was tearing him away from a wife and son. He found his way clear of drugs with a 12-step program. But it goes further. A counselor with “Parents for Peace” introduces him to Heval, on the notion that a 12-step program to overcome a ritualized hatred of Muslims (Chris had joined the local Klan) required a relationship with a Muslim. It worked, creating a road show out of Heval and Chris with their message, and this powerful documentary under the Katie Couric brand. (Couric, who briefly replaced Dan Rather as anchor of CBS Evening News, also went to UVa.)

One scene that struck me powerfully was Heval first driving through Lafayette, Ga., in his late-model black Mercedes-Benz. He is shocked by the poverty, the hovels and trailers, the despair that makes such communities the ruined gardens of opioid addiction or make Trump’s gilt-edge delusions so appealing. I feel the heartbreak of this landscape. I have seen it in Rockbridge County, Va., and in Pickens County, Ga., so close to the bountiful nature and communities I have loved. From a purely compassionate vantage, without the politics or sociology, this glimpse of rural poverty, where mostly white Appalachian folks dwell in a forgotten or stereotyped America, floods me with love and sympathy. Yes, these folks are resentful. Why wouldn’t they be? I also understand a very different resentfulness – the bitter resentment of a young Black Lives Matters activist or some white allies who empathize with that Black experience. But to the forgotten or demeaned Appalachian folks, it must be appalling that the “resentment” of young BLM protestors is presented sympathetically by the “liberal media” while the culture calls their resentment “hate” and “racist.”

I shouldn’t judge like this. Heval doesn’t seem to judge. He merely utters the sounds of sorrow and shock, a compassionate refugee driving through a land like his own war-ravaged homeland, astonished that Americans could forget these children of their land and history.

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Robert E. Lee and Me

Changing names honoring Confederate generals and removing memorials, apart from a few practical challenges, is relatively easy. Monuments can be moved into museums, and names on street signs can be changed. (At W&L, the four-ton statue of Lee napping in battle dress with sword at hand is too much to move, but Lee Chapel was renamed University Chapel.)

But to get rid of the world’s largest Confederate monument at Stone Mountain? That’s hard to imagine. How much dynamite would it take, and what about the optics? “Erasing history” would come to mind unbidden. . .

For full story, go to Salvation South.

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The Poetics of James Taylor

Moving in silent desperation
Keeping an eye on the Holy Land
A hypothetical destination
Say, who is this walking man?

The baritone of James Taylor bewitches with a melody that long ago wormed into my brain for keeps. It sleeps, then can’t you just feel the moonshine? It awakens, silent except in my head, a deep emotion of fall in the mountains on a gravel road. That’s James Taylor, like an older brother I never met.

Now that we’ve settled into this condo, Libby lets me know that the sleek little Audio-Technico turntable she bought can also be used with the speaker system I’ve used for streaming Pandora and NPR. Out of the vinyl records we’ve saved, but haven’t played in an eternity, I pull out James Taylor’s 1974 “Walking Man.” It’s perfect, better than I remembered.

Every song on this album is a gem, the work of a craftsman at a good time in his long career, making these 10 songs that were not “hits” but perfect in their own way. Not only that. These are also poems. I declare that as one who has studied poetry, meter-scanned Virgil, and knows the bad from the decent and deep. These are fine and deep and mean a lot to me.

Take those first lines. “Silent desperation” is a riff on Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation,” of course, but maybe so is Holy Land, which Thoreau notes was the root of “saunter,” a le Sainte Terre, in his  essay on walking.

Who is this walking man? He’s the ghost spirit of American restlessness, Billy the Kid, whom Conrad Aiken associated with the solitary self-exile from the Puritan commonwealth, William Blackstone of Rhode Island, in a long poem, “The Kid.” It’s also a recurring figure in James Taylor songs, the country road wanderer abandoning home and farm, a bit of himself on heroin or in therapy between Stockbridge and Boston. Or sometimes it’s his father, imagined as a n’er-do-well who left home. “Pappy’s come to rambling on/ Stumbling around drunk/ Down on the farm.”

In fact, Dr. Isaac Montrose Taylor was the dean of the University of North Carolina Medical School. I recently went back to Carolina (not just in my mind) and walked Morgan Creek Trail, a city park along the creek where the Taylor boys used to play. The highway bridge over Morgan Creek has been named The James Taylor Bridge. The house where the boys grew up, worth well over a million now, is gated and behind a bamboo stand in a wooded neighborhood of modernist houses.

Country songs usually split open an adage or cliché for double entendre, “I’ve got friends in low places.” James Taylor does that a lot in the “Walking Man” album, but tightly and dinging with inner assonance.

Most everybody’s got seeds to sow
It ain’t always easy for a weed to grow, no
So he don’t hoe the row for no one
Oh for sure one’s always missing
And something’s never quite right
Ah, but who would want to listen to him
Kissing his existence good night.

His rhyme schemes are well-tooled, not just couplets or A-B, A-B, but sometimes A-B-C, A-B-C as in “Me and My Guitar.” “I hear horns/ I hear voices/ I hear strings/ Seems I was born/ with too many choices/ Now what am I going to do with all these extra things.” Even using the simple Shakespearean form of A-B, A-B, loosely, he upends the story of Odysseus being recognized by his dog’s sense of smell. From “Hello Old Friend,” about returning to the Taylor compound on Martha’s Vineyard:

Little dog David I must look like a fool
I should’ve remembered you’d be forgetting my smell, well
Give me a week or two to recapture my cool
I’ve got stories to tell
About how I snatched the devil’s catch
And outran the hounds of hell.

“Walking Man,” the album, has one pop song cover, “Ain’t No Song,” and one Chuck Berry cover, “The Promised Land.” These may be the least poetic, though the first one succeeds because it’s a riff on songwriting (“Not even this song’s gonna tell you the way that I feel”) and the other, to me, because it encodes the Black experience in America – the Great Migration and the Freedom Ride bus that “left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham.”

The other songs I would put into three categories, three dark lodes that James Taylor mines for verbal gold.

One is depression. A girl, I assume, is sinking into acute melancholy that only the singer can enter with her, because he’s been there. Or maybe he is the one who is sinking. Maybe the depression is not another person, but his interior “love.” The experience is like love because it binds the two, or maybe just the lonely self with itself, silent and secret. “Daddy’s Baby” begins: “Daddy’s baby what’s got you thinking/ What’s got you sinking so low/ Is there something I should know/ Something new to you.” And it ends, mysteriously: “So I called my love my home.” The same sweet sadness finds its end in “Fading Away”:

Well, it’s hard to find a label
For this feeling in my bones
That this is all a make-believe
But my cards are on the table
And their ain’t nothing up my sleeve
And here I thought I was a thinking man
But I’m a shrinking man, I’m sinking man
I’m fading, fading away

The second category is the seductive nature of rock. In “Me and My Guitar” he sings, “If he can’t go to heaven/ Maybe I don’t want to go, Lord.” Where does this beguiling music come from? Africa. “See the white man sailing his ship upon the sea/ Watch the white man shackle the black man to a tree/ To the invader go the fruits of war/ He misses home and his boots are sore/ He has not got no roots no more/ He comes for your gold/ Watch out for your soul” (“Rock ‘N’ Roll is Music Now”). This fruit of war – the rebellion of the post-war baby boom – becomes even more haunting in “Migration” with its slow Vox Humana.

Mystery muse, how I hunger for an answer
Unsung song, how I long to play the changes
Hidden rhythm haven’t I always been your dancer
Sacred secrets of the meaning to my dreaming. Migration.

The mysterious “slow vibration” of migration leads to the third theme – decline and fall. This is not just the singer “Fading Away” (“the circles in my mind/ They have been winding slowly down/ . . .I’m seizing up, I’m freezing up”). It’s the great collapse of the West, of our system of extraction and exploitation breaking down. “Let It All Fall Down” is a straight-forward prayer to admit we did this to ourselves and to be as gentle as we can be as we welcome the end.

. . at least we might show the good sense
To know when we’ve been wrong
And it’s already taken too long
So we bring it to a stop
Then we take it from the top
We let it settle on down softly
Like your gently falling snow
Or let it tumble down and topple
Like the temple long ago.

In the early 1970s, I was sure I had the good sense at 21 to know when we’ve been wrong. I wanted to see the machinery stop, let it all rest. Being strapped in an airliner seat during a landing, when it reverses its engines and roars and shakes to try to slow down from 200 to 20 mph, that’s what I thought it would feel like to get back to nature. This song contained a poem that said what I was feeling then. And as Robert Frost says of true poetry, like metal on the tongue, it never loses its freshness.

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Energy is everything (almost)

“Energy” has many meanings. But there’s one way to see it as everything. Energy is Man’s discovery of fire, how civilizations ate (from hunter gathering to farming), the population-exploding Industrial Revolution, and the cause of Gulf Wars. It’s fossil fuels and solar power. It’s the photosynthesis of forests and flowers, as well as our daily energy and body temperature.

I see this big picture because I covered energy as a beat in Rhode Island in the early 80s, taking a course on it from a physics professor at Brown and reading experts like Daniel Yergin and Amory Lovins. I’m no expert, but I covered the problems of trying to build the Seabrook nuclear power plant – not just the protests but Wall Street shunning it due to problems of safety and security. I covered deregulation. It’s complicated. As I obsess now over the need for the world to deal with climate change, I admit it’s complicated and confusing, even to me.

So with some relief, I read an Ezra Klein column in the Times dividing the big picture into three parts, like Caesar did Gaul. He calls these three “goals society can have for its energy usage.”

The first is to use less. You can recycle, go vegetarian, and bike-ride to work. Or like me, you might drift into lifestyle changes based on tax credits (we bought an electric Nissan Leaf), and less income (with my retirement, we sold our big old house and moved into a condo).

The second type of energy goal, in Klein’s big picture, is doing the same things we do, but with less fossil fuel. De-carbonization. Wind, solar, maybe even small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). That’s the goal of Biden’s successes and the latest climate summit in Egypt. The change is huge, but what we do with the energy is maintain the status quo.

And for the third and last energy goal. . .meet the Jetsons. It’s about entirely new sci-fi sources of “clean and abundant energy” that would supposedly open up whole new ways of living, the way coal, gas and oil improved everything (except maybe what we lost in our humanity).

A little understanding about energy seems pretty important, and generally lacking. For a little understanding, I have come to some basic principles about energy. One is that there’s no free lunch. Batteries in our Leaf are heavy as hell and take the extraction of all kinds of dirty chemicals from faraway places. And it’s hardly burning less fossil fuel if the power is from coal- or gas-burning power plants.

Decarbonization is incremental, always with downside costs. But let’s do it.

Another principle is that, paradoxically, energy isn’t everything. It’s “necessary but not sufficient” in defining human life, the great mystery that includes language, religion, meaning, insanity, love, baseball and so on.

And now I have one more simple principle. Of the three “energy aims” Klein outlines, none of the three is bad, unless it sees the other two as bad.  “Abundant, clean energy” would actually be a terrible thing because of human nature, but impossible because of the laws of physics. We need all three goals – using less, decarbonizing and big breakthroughs – and a better grasp of what we’re up against.

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Political Pragmatism, 2022

Common Good Governing began in 2017 with a dream. That is, literally, “a dream,” a bad dream that Lester Levine woke up with about a week after Trump won the Election of 2016. It was also just after Levine’s first grandchild was born. Having a grandson put Levine in a dark mood of worry about the future of America. Trump’s election was, as for other intellectuals, a shock and dismay for him. Levine, a retired professional in organizational change (“I’m a behaviorist,” specializing in how social signals change people’s collective behavior) thought about that dream. It must have something to do with how Americans vote, and about the future world that his grandson would inherit.

In the dream, he was in a foreign land that had just overthrown decades of dictatorship. In the vacuum that followed, the people were desperately looking for a democratic system that might protect them from the next dictator to emerge. They studied democratic systems around the world, going back to the Greeks, and found the most interesting to be America’s. The principles of the Founding Fathers seemed to be good: freedom of expression, the rule of law not men, an ideal of individual rights and fairness. And the system seemed resilient and sustainable, surviving and strengthening through partisan battles and a Civil War. But then, they discovered, something went wrong. Around the year 2000, the nation became increasingly divided by its party loyalties. It seemed the system was breaking down, as it did for other humane systems in the past. Then he woke up.

Sitting with me at an outdoor Caribou Coffee table in Chapel Hill in the gloom of a late gray afternoon in December, Levine described how his quiet little movement developed from there. He learned that an organization had been started in 1948 that seemed to want what he wanted – elected representatives who worked for good governing (“Goo-Goos” was the dismissive name for such reformers in the Progressive Era) instead of hack politicians. The National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) was started by Eleanor Roosevelt and some Democratic allies. Today, with an office in Washington DC, it makes available detailed analysis of voting behavior to promote election of progressive Democratic candidates. Levine drew on parts of this organization’s mission, but not the part favoring “progressive Democratic” candidates. He wanted an approach that favored pragmatic problem-solving candidates. Of course they were likely to belong to a party, and probably the Democratic Party. But Levine was looking for values and principles higher than party.

He began putting together CommonGoodGoverning (CGG). He avoided the internet, so you can’t Google it. (We began our talk over hot tea as a couple of over-70 geezers kvetching about how kids are being damaged by their social media trance; Levine’s now-7-year-old grandson is a particularly bitter case for him.) CGG has a PowerPoint (he calls it “our deck”) he’ll send you by email on request, and a newsletter he emails monthly to 1,610 interested subscribers. It’s the most non-aggressive political email I’ve ever seen, never asking for donations and happy to be unsubscribed-to. “Hopeful American Democracy Fixers,” he writes in each newsletter from the top. “If you don’t want any more monthly updates, just hit reply and say ‘no more.’” One of the striking tactics of CGG is how it operates below the radar.  Levine asked me not to use his name if I wrote something for a publication. (I don’t consider this measly blog a meaningful publication). Why? “I don’t have time” to be bothered by the attention. His secret goal is for CGG to be discovered in six or eight years when a few unlikely candidates explain their surprising wins to a Washington Post reporter by mentioning the support they got from CommonGoodGoverning. But he won’t seek that publicity.

Here’s what CGG has done for every two-year election, starting in 2018. First, it looked for fresh candidates running for open seats who met its criteria. According to the PowerPoint deck, they must be:

  • Anchored by principles that a majority of American voters agree on, not issues, policies or ideologies
  • Focused on problems that a majority of American voters, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, are concerned about (e.g. healthcare costs, veteran services, immigration, responding to climate change, etc.)
  • Seeking to replace politicians with public servants/servant leaders

CGG then narrowed the number of these candidates down to a few dozen, who were approached with offers to help (not endorse or donate to). Those who responded were interviewed and chosen for support.

Two years ago, Levine called me up when he read an op-ed I had in the Roanoke Times about my experience teaching for a term at a North Carolina community college. (I was a tenured associate professor at a top liberal arts college in Virginia on leave for the fall). I was intrigued by his project. This year, I volunteered to help. Here’s what CGG volunteers do:

  • Research on voter opportunities specific to their district
  • Research on “truthful” opposition research
  • Active brainstorming on specific campaign challenges
    • Ongoing sharing of lessons learned from past/current campaigns

They don’t donate money, and they don’t leave home. Levine said members of CGG from outside the Chapel Hill area have never come to meet him as I did, at least not since the pandemic.

My assignment for the ’22 campaign was to find minority “potential influencers” in certain small towns and counties. I sent the information to Levine to send to the campaigns for four of their seven chosen candidates for the general election. This was to operationalize Levine’s behaviorist theory that peer-to-peer networking is the most powerful way to win votes. Being a former journalist, I enjoyed the assignment, using the internet to compile names and contacts (emails or phone numbers) of up to a dozen locals (chairs of library boards, arts councils, Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and such) in targeted areas of four congressional districts: Colorado’s 3rd, Arizona’s 2nd, Iowa’s 2nd and New Jersey’s 2nd. This, after I had failed to be any help for CGG’s candidate Katie Dean, a working-class auto-repair owner in western North Carolina who lost the Democratic primary to a more liberal candidate. I also liked this other candidate, but as a Brown- and Harvard-educated minister in a same-sex marriage, Jasmine Beach-Farrara predictably lost to the Republican in Mark Meadow’s conservative district by 9.5 percentage points.

This year, CGG had fewer candidates than in the two previous elections. For the primary, it had a different group of seven candidates. All but one of those lost (including two Republicans). For the general election, all seven CGG candidates lost, some by a mile. But one came very close, and I was glad it was the one I helped on the western slope of the Rockies in Colorado. Gun-toting Republican Lauren Boebert of Rifle, Colorado, squeaked by with about a 500-vote margin.

In his after-action newsletter, Levin blamed gerrymandering and the fact that four of the seven CGG candidates were running against incumbents this year, the first time CGG had backed challengers to incumbents. That was discouraging, but he signed off as always on his newsletter, “Onward.”

Common Good Governing has already helped elect six members of Congress. Four of them joined a bipartisan Problem-Solvers Caucus that is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, co-chaired by a Democrat and a Republican.  

This goo-goo approach may seem naïve or over-matched by the grim options of mass violence or mass cynicism. But with a narrow Republican takeover in the House, and an equally narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, it’s a serious alternative to a serious problem. George Packer put it this way in his article in the Atlantic last December, “Are We Doomed?”

There is a third scenario, though, beyond mass violence or mass cynicism: a civic movement to save democracy. In an age of extreme polarization, it would take the form of a broad alliance of the left and the center-right. This democratic coalition would have to imagine America’s political suicide without distractions or illusions. And it would have to take precedence over everything else in politics.

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On a Passenger Train to New Orleans

I am not a train nut. But riding in Amtrak’s private sleeper car for the daylong trip from Atlanta to New Orleans – the old Southern Crescent – has me in an unusual state of elation. The perfect tracks bend out away from the dense plumbing of Atlanta traffic. The city acquires a more likeable personality from this sound-buffering window. The whale-like power grants me a security, unbelted, that I never feel in a car. Gathering speed, the train seems almost magic in its defiance of the physical forces that bind a city to a killing routine. Curving through the disenchanted woods of Georgia’s countryside, Train 19 seems immune in this pace from the way time has frozen in the small towns, as if they were halted by the red-flashing gates. Whoever designed the universal train whistle was a musical genius. Or is it America’s train songs and childhood memories that make it such a tender call?

In the age of insomnia, I understand the NextDoor social-media app complaint I read from someone against that train whistle in downtown Decatur at 2 in the morning. Was this necessary, the person wondered. I don’t mind it. My subconscious is comforted by the sound. What is it that stirs me like this?

I remember an almost religious experience I had near Atlanta’s surviving train station – a little architectural jewel on Peachtree Street between Midtown and Buckhead that was recently renovated. Through a window at the station this morning as we waited for the delayed train, I could see the exact location: the bridge on Peachtree crossing over the eight lanes of Interstate 85. Although it’s now decorated with steel glitz from the 1996 Olympics, I recognized the spot. I was not yet 20, and had dropped out of college in Florida after five months studying in London. Back then, I was in that mood of anomie that makes young people know they are “lost” before they give themselves to Jesus or lifelong sobriety. But my identity crisis had a strong sense of place. Atlanta was where I grew up, so like Dickens in London, I was walking its streets when nobody walked them, at night. I walked all the way from my childhood home on a duck pond in Peachtree Heights (Buckhead) downtown and back. I stopped on the Peachtree bridge over the Interstate (a block north of where my mother had attended Washington Seminary) and stared down at the cars zipping by, north and south. Something was very wrong, I felt in that eternity of looking down over the bridge’s side. It wasn’t me that contemplated jumping. It was as if the city had already jumped, and had killed itself under that bridge. I wept.

This morning, I was remembering my bridge experience when a character with a gold front tooth and a saxophone necktie showed up to entertain us in the First Class sitting area. There was something magic about his showing up, like the conjured conductor Ringo Starr played in the TV show “Thomas the Train.” His name was Robert West. “I’m a little late, like the train,” he said, but he was going to fill the half hour with amazing facts about trains and about his life in their midst. He was a graphic designer for the GE contractor for Amtrak, drawing engineering for next-generation locomotives and doing PR on the side. He is also involved in something called Steel Rail Galleries in College Park and is an encyclopedia of train history. He is writing a book about trains and race he says he’s calling “From Chains to Trains to Change.” Both his grandfathers had belonged to the Pullman Porters, the legendary union of Black men who cooked for and served white First Class train passengers in the pride of their dark uniforms and cylindrical caps (still worn by Amtrak conductors), but who also won decent wages from the powerful train companies and quietly brought Black weekly newspapers South from cities like Chicago and Baltimore. Pullman Porters are said to have nourished the Great Migration and laid a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. A. Phillip Randolph and Thurgood Marshall were both Pullman Porters. Mr. West said one of his grandfathers, in particular, taught him everything.

I asked him about how and why the great private railway companies of America had abandoned passenger rail service. I didn’t know this history, but suspected that they had stopped using their public-rights-of-way for a public good only to rake in more private profit. Mr. West said the private railroads had indeed abandoned passenger rail service, which is why the federal government created Amtrak in 1973. It was originally an emergency response to a crisis. That crisis – the near-death of passenger train service – was coming to a head around the time I stood on that Peachtree Street bridge. Maybe my despair over watching the endless flow of cars below me was a blind grief over what cars had finally done to my hometown. Atlanta had started as a railroad terminus and in the heyday of passenger trains had two huge stations downtown, Union and Terminus. Mr. West described the architectural features of those two stations as if they were the two cathedrals of this secular city, now gone. The private railroad companies like CSX and Norfolk Southern, he said, have made tons more money (though freight fell in the pandemic and is weak in the current economy). Why did they abandon passenger service? One word, he said: Greed. Not just the greed of the railroad companies, but the demand for the individual freedom of cars for everyone, for every need.

Amtrak survived the emergency and is looking even better today, Mr. West said. It has received $66 billion from the infrastructure law signed by “the current Administration.”

The private freight lines still have their dominance and lobbyists. We had to stop several times on our way to New Orleans so that freight trains could move first, even though Amtrak pays to use the rails that the private corporations have managed to secure for themselves over the decades. As I learned at a neighborhood hearing last week, Atlanta’s proposals for light rail rapid transit must play supplicant in a similar fashion to use CSX’s rights-of-way.

But the ride was an epiphany, a sacrament of transportation. I unfolded a hinged leaf on my little side table for a card game of solitaire, and admired its thick steel, like something out of the Bell Bomber Plant of the 1940s. To lock our sliding door, there was an ingenious double mechanism of steel, like nothing I’d ever seen in door locks. “I wonder if Mr. West drew a graphic design of that before it was put on all the latest sleeper cars,” my wife said. The last time we had the satisfaction of unlocking that device, we heard a conductor whoop it up, “We’re in New Orleans, hoo-ee, end of the line.”

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